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**Out of the Ashes Blog Tour**

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I have known Vicky Newham – author of ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ and ‘Out of the Ashes‘ – for several years. As regular readers of this blog will know, ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ was one of my top reads in 2018 and I’m now delighted to be part of the blog tour for the next book in the DI Maya Rahman series: ‘Out of the Ashes‘. 

A flash mob in Brick Lane is interrupted by an explosion. With fire raging through one of the city’s most infamous streets, DI Maya Rahman is called to the scene. With witnesses too caught up in the crowd to have seen anything, Maya must lead an investigation with no leads. And when Maya is faced with a second, more horrifying crime, she knows she is in a race against time to solve the crimes before East London burns. 

Feast on the first chapter of ‘Out of the Ashes‘ here and then order / download the rest of it. I guarantee you will not be able to put this fantastic book down.

Vic x

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Rosa, 2 p.m.

Rosa Feldman stood at the door of her Brick Lane newsagent’s, staring out at the street she’d known since she was four. She couldn’tshake the feeling that something was wrong. It was the shop opposite,run by the young Lithuanian couple. Since first thing this morning, the lights had been off and the shutters down. Initially, she was relieved that for once, the ugly neon sign, with its air of Margate or Blackpool, wasn’t flashing outside her bedroom window, but as the morning progressed, she felt increasingly uneasy.

It wasn’t like them at all. She couldn’t recall ever seeing the shop closed in the daytime.A tap on the glass snapped Rosa back into the afternoon. It was Mr Walker from the off-licence a few doors down. He shouted a cheery greeting and waved as he passed the window. Regular as clockwork, off to get chips for tea. Rosa raised her hand to return the gesture, but the pain in her wrists and knuckles bit again. Damned arthritis.

Mr Walker’s knock was usually her reminder to think about their meal. Today was Friday after all. But without Józef, the Sabbath meal wasn’t the same and she didn’t bother with the rituals any more. In the last year, she’d lost weight and clothes hung off her spare frame. What was the point of lighting candles when there was only one of you? She’d steam a plate of yesterday’s chicken and potatoes. That would do her. Fortunately, she didn’t have to go far to get home, just upstairs to the flat, even if it was still freezing at this time of year.

Over the dusty window display, two men were putting a new shop sign up where Rosenberg’s jewellers used to be. Work had been going on for weeks, and it looked like the place was nearly ready to open. Alchemia, it said. A swanky new Polish bar by the looks of it, slap bang next-door to Mr Hamid’s curry house. He wasn’t going to be happy. So much had changed in Brick Lane since she and her family had arrived, and life moved so fast on the other side of the window, it made Rosa dizzy. The pace was relentless and the change uncompromising. Inside the shop, though, she felt safe. Change there was slow and predictable. Above her head, by the door, the fan heater droned noisily and made little impact on the chilly air, but she didn’t mind. It had always done that. And she barely noticed the crumbling plaster of the ground floor walls, or the mildew which clung to ceiling corners like a nasty rash.

Her thoughts slid back to the shop over the road. The place was usually open all hours of the day and night, selling its fancy five-quid soups to whoever could afford them. She had no objection to people earning a living, but her parents would be turning in their graves. They’d survived the Ghetto on two hundred calories a day. When they left Warsaw, and arrived in London, it was the handouts from the Jewish soup kitchen in Brune Street that kept them alive. It was extraordinary to think that what had been humble subsistence for many families was now a fad-food. She’d been over for a spy at the menu, of course, when they were shut. Apart from some matzo ball soup, she couldn’t find much she fancied and didn’t know what most of it was, let alone how to pronounce it. Keen-war, or something, a youth with a bicycle and a dog had told Rosa.

She sighed. She missed her old neighbours. Those were Sabbath meals to look forward to. They were exactly how her mother described Warsaw before the war. Mrs Blum from the bagel shop would make the challah. Rich, eggy and sweet. It had been ages since Rosa had felt one of those in her hands, soft and warm, in its pretty braid shape. The Altmans would bring the wine. The Posners, candles. And the Rosenbergs, the jewellers, always came with freshly made kugel.

But now her parents were dead, and all her Jewish neighbours were either dead too or had moved away. Except Rosa.

And there was that feeling again, a gnawing emptiness, a sense that life had moved on without her. It was so unsettling. Every fibre of her being was exhausted by the continual need to think about whether to follow her compatriots out of the East End and into the London suburbs.

The sound of voices jolted her back into the present. Yelling. Music. Outside in the street, a thumping bass beat started up. Tremors vibrated through the shop, and a booming noise invaded the silence of her thoughts. Yobbos, probably, spitting everywhere and pumping out music from one of those dreadful sound-systems. They’d pass in a minute.

But they didn’t.

The music got louder and louder, and – oh, typical – the group had stopped outside Rosa’s shop. All guffaws, swearing, floppy hair and hoodies. More voices, bellowing and cheering, and one by one, people were joining them. What on earth was going on? On a Friday afternoon, from lunchtime onwards, she was used to the steady trickle of people down Brick Lane, getting ready for a night on the tiles and a curry, but it was unusual to see so many people together. She edged over to the corner of the shop window to get a

better view. The music had changed, and one by one people pulled black bandanas into masks, over their mouths and noses, and were dancing, if jabbing a finger in the air and screaming counted as dancing these days. Teenagers, by the look of them. Some younger. She wasn’t very good at judging age, and they all wore such similar clothes, but she’d put money on some of them not being a day over ten.

Rosa pressed her nose against the pane of glass. Outside, the street hummed with joy. There was an innocence to their dancing, even if the masks were a bit scary. And they weren’t doing any harm, were they? She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She used to know all the kids round here; knew their families by name, but none of this lot were familiar. There were at least ten of them, dancing in the street, throwing themselves about like acrobats, bending, leaping, twirling each other around. For a moment, Rosa was reminded of the tea room dances she and Józef used to go to before Agnieszka and Tomasz were born. They’d save for weeks, get dolled up in their best clothes. Oh, how much fun they’d been.

There were more than twenty of them now, maybe thirty. Someone was lighting sparklers and passing them round for the kids. She adored sparklers. And before she knew it, her fingers pulled the door handle and she was outside, the bell dinging shut behind her. The sulphurous smell set light to her dulled senses and she felt the day’s irritation shake itself from her shoulders. She was a kid again, at crisp November bonfires and balmy mid-summer street parties, with people passing sparklers round.

Rosa cleared her throat. Coughed. Her lungs weren’t good these days, weakened by years of a poorly heated flat, the damp shop walls, and Józef’s cigarette smoke.

 

She joined the throng of passers-by who were huddled, mesmer- ised by the dancing. Was it a student gathering? She was puzzled. Who was in charge? She couldn’t see any organisers or anyone giving instructions, and had no idea where the music was coming from. People were merging with the group of their own accord and encouraging others to do the same. They all looked so carefree.

 

The music brought a smile to Rosa’s cold lips. Her heel began to tap and she was lost to nostalgia. It was such a relief to forget the pain and drudgery of the last year. To forget her arthritis and money worries. Was that Lulu and ‘Shout’? Her heart leaped. Many a time she and Józef had danced to that tune. Her mind was flooded with memories of all the occasions when they’d danced together, his warm hand in the small of her back, guiding her forwards, the other clasping hers, keeping her safe. She felt a lump in her throat. They were glorious memories, even if they were now tainted by the agony of loss. It had only been a year and she still missed him so much.

A waltz kicked in, floaty and dramatic. Initially, it had been youngsters dancing but now it was people of all ages, lured over by the infectious atmosphere of Brick Lane on a chilly April afternoon. Hearing the waltz start, a Sikh man checked his turban and, with a huge grin, he clasped the hands of a woman in a navy-blue trench coat. She was giggling like a schoolgirl, a small flat bag diagonally across her body, her head tilted back, carefree and stunned, as though she hadn’t had so much fun in ages. Rosa guessed the woman was about her age. Perhaps she was a widow too?

Rosa’s hips started to sway, and she was tempted to go over and join in. What was she thinking? She was being silly. She couldn’t. Who would mind the shop while she was cavorting in the street?

Another crowd of youths piled in, hee-hawing and smoking, in their thin cotton clothing and baseball shoes. Some with their bottoms hanging out of their trousers, others in drainpipe jeans. Didn’t they feel the cold? Several more children were in tow. Why weren’t they all at school? Before Rosa knew it, one of them had taken her hand and led her towards the group. Elvis’ crooning tones wafted down the street and once again Rosa’s spirits soared. The teenagers looked so funny, impersonating the rock ’n’ roll moves of ‘All Shook Up’. It was the most fun she’d had on a Friday afternoon since . . .

Józef would have enjoyed this.

‘Come on, Rosa,’ he would have said in his calm, decisive voice, and he’d have locked the shop, led her out into the street and begun whirling her around with that boyish grin of his.

A quick head count told her there were about fifty people dancing now and a good twenty more hanging around. The street whiffed of whacky-backy. Rosa had forgotten her nagging joints and aching legs; the grimy shelves with mounting dust; the delivery boxes she couldn’t carry. For a few sweet moments, she’d stopped feeling sick to death of the damn shop, of book-keeping and fretting over decisions. She didn’t care about any of it anymore. All she wanted was—

A loud splitting sound tore through the air, followed by a series of cracks and bangs. Rosa gasped as orange flames burst out of the top floor windows of the shop opposite, and billowed upwards. Swirling streams of black smoke inked the pale sky. Fire raged behind the first-floor windows, and the ground floor shop was filled with smoke and flames. She cried out in pain as acrid fumes hit her lungs, forcing her to clamp her hand over her mouth. Everyone was shouting and running for cover as burning timber peeled away from windows. Screams pierced the air as lengths of wood and red-hot embers rained down on the crowd below. Rosa’s legs were like jelly and she felt dizzy. She stumbled over something on the ground in front of her and lurched forwards. She made out a woman, clutching her arm.

 

‘Help,’ came the agonised cry at Rosa’s feet. ‘Please help me.’

Panic engulfed Rosa, and she was transported back to the sensory onslaught of the Warsaw Ghetto, to primitive memories of endless screaming, to the cacophony of bombs and blasts and gunshots. From behind, someone shoved her out of the way and she stumbled forwards. All around her, people were coughing, retching and staggering, scarves and hands clasped over their mouths, desperate to escape the blaze. The air was cloying. Putrid. She was plunged into blind terror, realising she could die. This wasn’t Poland, and it wasn’t the end of the war, but she had to get away from the fire and ring 999 before someone died.

As the blaze ripped through the roof, smoke continued to spiral upwards into the sky. Rosa staggered blindly towards the blue door of her shop, to the step and doorway, arms groping ahead for something to grab. The fumes bit at her lungs and she was gasping for air so much she was retching. Finally, her hands grabbed the handle. She used all her weight to heave the door open and stumbled inside, pushing it shut behind her as quickly as she could.

She sucked in some air. It was like breathing through needles. She had to get to the phone in the back room. Stands and magazine racks flashed past her as she lurched towards the till, gasping for breath and snatching for a hold. She hauled her way round the counter, head spinning, and grabbed the phone receiver from the wall. Her eyes were streaming.

Keep blinking, she told herself. Breathe. She tried to calm herself; to rub away the tears that the fumes had produced; to steady her shaking hands and press the buttons. What should she say? Was it terrorists? Had there been an explosion?

Just say FIRE.

Rosa felt her head starting to spin. Lights flashed, dots appeared and she went floppy. Her mind slipped sideways and everything stopped.

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Getting to Know You: Daniel James

Over the last couple of years, I’ve got to know Daniel James, author of ‘The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas’. I’ve been lucky enough to host him at Noir at the Bar a few times as well as being invited by Daniel to read my own work at his ‘After Dark’ event for Books on Tyne. 

Daniel will be in conversation with Jacky Collins at Waterstones, Newcastle, on Wednesday 30th January. Tickets are £3 and I’m reliably informed that there are a few left – reserve your space now!

My thanks to Daniel for taking the time to chat to us. 

Vic x

daniel james, zurich, october 2017Tell us about your book.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is based on the real life story of Ezra Maas, a British artist who became famous in the late 1960s, but who turned his back on fame and created his greatest artworks from the shadows, before eventually disappearing altogether in mysterious circumstances in the early 2000s. I became interested in telling the true story of Maas’s life and presumed death, but nothing could have prepared me for the truth that the book uncovers.

It quickly occurred to me that in searching for the true story of Maas’s life, travelling around the world to the cities he lived, visiting the galleries where he created his work, and interviewing those who knew and collaborated with him, that my role as biographer was essentially a kind of literary detective. As such, I consciously decided to write these chapters of the book in the style of a detective story, a page-turning mystery thriller through a postmodern, existential lens. However, the book is also very much a biography and there are chapters dedicated to documenting Maas’s life from 1950 onwards in a more journalistic style, accompanied by reproductions of authentic archival material and correspondence, including news clippings, letters, emails, phone transcripts and more. If one half of the book is like a detective story, the other half is a biography written by an investigative journalist. There are a lot of different styles and techniques being employed throughout the text, but they come together to create a new kind of book where readers are challenged to become detectives themselves, following in the footsteps of my investigation, as I attempt to separate fact from fiction and history from myth, page by page, chapter by chapter.

What inspired it?
Ezra Maas’s incredible life story was the inspiration. In 2011, I received an anonymous phone call suggesting the true story of Maas would make an interesting biography and everything led from there. It didn’t take long for my research to reveal a number of contradictions and inconsistencies in the authorised version of Maas’s life, and naturally, the journalist in me began asking questions. The more I asked, the more secrets I uncovered, and I soon found myself being warned off the story. Of course, as soon as that happened, I knew I had found something special and there was no turning back.

Alongside that, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between truth and fiction, the self and reality, as a writer. And in many ways, Maas’s life was the perfect gateway into those subjects and themes. His life, and my interests as a writer, were perfectly aligned and the phone call that set me on the path to writing his biography couldn’t have come at a more ideal moment. I was in the right place at the right time.

I recently read an interview with a writer who described her latest work as ‘existential noir’ because of the way it used the structure of a traditional mystery story to explore unanswerable questions of being and knowing – what can we ever know with any real certainty, about ourselves or the world – and that’s very much the territory I like work in – crafting stories around questions of identity and reality that lead us down the rabbit hole, and force us to confront our deepest subconscious fears.

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?
I’m happiest when I’m writing regularly because it feels like I’m fulfilling my potential and doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my time. Kafka supposedly said that ‘a writer who isn’t writing, is a monster courting insanity’ and I completely understand what he meant. Whenever I’m not writing, I feel like I should be, and when it’s going well, it’s like electricity flowing through me – it’s a serious high, but more than that, it also provides a deeper sense of purpose and satisfaction.

And on a lighter note, it’s great fun. Who doesn’t want to make up stories and let their imagination run free? I love the freedom that writing gives me. I can create entire worlds, people, and histories. I’ve always been a daydreamer and writing allows me to share my dreams and imaginings with others.

I don’t really dislike anything about writing itself, but like any physical or mental endeavour, there are days when it can really feel like hard work. Over the last few years, I’ve learned to listen to my body and not force myself to write when it isn’t flowing. You can still work on your book without actually writing. You can read for research, visit a location, watch a film, listen to music, take a walk. Professional athletes warm up before an event, they stretch, eat and drink the right things, and get their bodies ready to perform. Writers need to do the same with their minds. Sometimes it’s about clearing your mind to allow space for the ideas to come in, other times it’s about tuning into a certain frequency, atmosphere or mood, and channelling a particular character or scene.

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
I love reading. It’s one of my great pleasures in life and it’s ultimately the reason I wanted to become a writer myself. I try to get through a novel every couple of weeks if I can. The books I return to the most are detective novels – Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, James M Cain to modern greats like James Lee Burke – and also postmodern works. At university, I specialised in fiction from 1940-1990 and that’s the era I find myself returning to the most when I’m looking for something new to read. I read a lot of comic books and graphic novels too (I practically grew up on Marvel Comics in particular). I’m a fan of Science Fiction and many other genres, and I read quite a bit of non-fiction, mostly literary and cultural theory, but it depends on what I’m working on at the time. I read a lot of books on contemporary art history, biographies and journalism when I was researching Ezra Maas, and I can imagine I’ll do the same with future novels. 

Currently sitting at the top of my to be read list currently are two excellent new novels – Three Dreams in the Key of G by Marc Nash and The Study Circle by Haroun Khan. The last book I bought before those was by the late, great Mark Fisher, a cultural theorist who blogged under the name K-Punk. I highly recommend his work to anyone who has yet to come across it. Mark’s writing introduced me to the concept of Hauntology, which I touch on in my own book.

Earlier this year, I also read the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer after being intrigued by Alex Garland’s adaptation of the first in the series, Annihilation. I’ve got a huge stack of books waiting to be read though. I love buying books and I love reading, but I do take long breaks when I’m actively writing myself, so this has resulted in an increasingly expanding To Be Read pile that I’ll probably never get through!

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Paul Auster. Raymond Chandler. Samuel Beckett. James Joyce. Thomas Pynchon. Philip Pullman. Philip K Dick. Jorge Luis Borges. Alasdair Grey. Flann O’Brien. David Lynch.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Everywhere. My life. Other people’s lives. History. Dreams. Music. Films. Ideas are all around us, all of the time. You’ve just got to open your eyes, listen and be in the right frame of mind to be inspired.

Do you have a favourite scene/character/story you’ve written?
Well, the novel is the best piece of work I’ve written so far and Ezra Maas is probably the most complex character I’ve brought to life, not just because he is a real person, but because there are so many conflicting stories about him. I’ve tried to reflect this in the book by capturing the multiple, overlapping narratives and descriptions, allowing them to coexist alongside each other so that the emphasis is on the reader of the book to play detective themselves and separate fact from fiction in Ezra’s life.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m about halfway through a second novel, which I hope to finish within the year. I actually started working on it in 2013, but Ezra Maas took over my life , so I put the other book on hold temporarily. Now that the Unauthorised Biography’ is out, I can focus on new projects, including returning to my work-in-progress second novel. Once that’s completed, I plan to work my way through the other novels I have planned, although I wouldn’t rule out one of those new ideas becoming my second novel – it just depends which idea excites me the most.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given (and who was it from)?
“Write the books you want to read.” 

Philip Pullman said that to me when I met him at the Durham Book Festival in 2015. It was very reassuring advice to receive from such a master storyteller, particularly as that’s exactly what I’ve always tried to do. I’ve been writing stories since the age of four or five and have always written for myself. If the story excites and interests me, if I want to keep turning the page to find out what happens next, if I find myself disappearing into the world of the book and thinking about it every waking second, then I know I’m on the right track.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
I’m somewhere in between. Generally speaking, I like to follow my intuition and let the story guide me, rather than plotting the entire book out in advance. I have a destination and a road map in my mind, but it has enough wide-open space to allow me to go off on unexpected adventures and detours as and when I need to. I might be the author of the book, but it’s a process of discovery for me too. An author is almost like a pioneer heading off into the wilderness. They discover the trail and share it with the readers who follow them.

Of course, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is based on real events, so it required several years of research, travel, interviews, and quite meticulous planning. At the same time, I remember the moment when I decided to write the book very vividly and I could already see the story fully formed in my mind. It all came to me in an instant. It was a Big Bang moment. One second there was nothing and then… everything. I knew where to start, how I wanted to present the story, with letters and emails and phone transcripts, and I knew exactly how it would end. But it also surprised me on multiple occasions. It kept me guessing all the way through with its twists and turns. It genuinely had a life of its own, sometimes in quite scary ways, almost as if the story couldn’t be contained on the page and wanted to bleed out into the world. Perhaps because it’s based on a true story, it has a special kind of power that makes it dangerous. I may have written it, but I don’t think even I know the book’s true potential.

This book, more than any other idea I’ve ever had, felt like it had already been written in a strange way and I was simply receiving it, like a transmitter, from somewhere out in the ether and it was my job to put it on the page; bring it to life.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
If writing books is really what you want to do, if it’s genuinely your dream in life, then don’t ever, ever give up. Keep going, keep believing in yourself, and keep writing, no matter what. You can and will make it happen, but only if you keep believing and keep writing.

What’s been your proudest writing-related moment?
The moment I found out the book was going to be published will always stand out in my mind. I didn’t tell anyone – not a single person – for about a week as I was worried I would jinx it somehow. It was something that I wanted so much and so badly that I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise it. About two years after that, I walked out onto the stage at the Newcastle Book Festival in front of a crowd of about 80 people, including my family and friends, and I read an extract from the book for the very first time. I was introduced on the night by Professor Brian Ward, we premiered a documentary video about Ezra Maas featuring the award-winning writer and artist Bryan Talbot, and we finished up with a Q&A where I was interviewed by Dr Claire Nally. Everything went as planned and afterwards we celebrated with cocktails created especially for the book at a late night after-party in a speakeasy-style basement bar called The Poison Cabinet in Newcastle. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect night and it was definitely one of my proudest moments.

The long-awaited launch of my novel with a trio of fantastic events in the North East, featuring guest authors and speakers and more than 150 attendees in total. This included a return to Books on Tyne and a special late-night event afterwards entitled Fiction After Dark with cocktails, live music and readings by Elementary Sisterhood. And of course, there was the launch itself at the wonderful Forum Books in Corbridge. It was a really lovely evening and a special moment for me. I can’t recommend Forum Books enough and I think it’s really important to support independent bookstores and local businesses

My next event will be at Waterstones Newcastle – the biggest bookstore in the North East – on Wednesday 30 January at 7pm, so that will be another proud moment. I’ll be reading an extract from the book, answering questions from the brilliant Dr Jacky Collins, and signing copies of my novel at the end. Tickets are £3 and on sale now.

Getting to Know You: Lucy Nichol

I’m delighted to host Lucy Nichol, author of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes‘, to the blog.

My thanks to Lucy for taking the time to chat to us today and for her honesty. 

Vic x

Lucy N - headshot - colour.JPGTell us about your book.
A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes is a memoir that’s packed with comment about mental health stigma and how it has influenced my thinking over the years. I tried to write it humorously and accessibly, as I’m an expert by lived experience when it comes to mental health – I am not a professional. So the views on the book are simply based on what I have soaked up and how I feel about it all.

It takes us through a range of stereotypes linked to mental health, and compares them to the reality. 

front cover - a series of unfortunate stereotypes

What inspired it?
I started writing and blogging in 2016. I started working as a media volunteer / champion with Time to Change and I also when started writing regularly for a range of media titles. The title of the book came to me when I wrote my first piece for Sarah Millican’s Standard Issue magazine, which was almost a summary of everything that is in the book. It was all about stigma and how we perceive anxiety disorders, specifically, as that was what my personal experience was based on. 

I love the Lemony Snickett stories, but Aunt Josephine sprung to mind when I was trying to think of a fictional well-known character with anxiety. And I thought – Christ, I have anxiety and I’m nothing like Aunt Josephine. I was convinced she was a pretty poor role model for anxiety.

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?
I find writing heaps of fun. I have a real thing for nostalgia, which is why I write so much about the 80s and 90s – not just my experience but everything that was happening around me – from food and TV shows to government safety campaigns and pop music. It always makes me smile and gives me context as to why and how my opinions on life have changed over the years.

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?
I never stop! I’m currently finishing Lost Connections by Johann Hari which I can genuinely say is quite the life changer and I urge anyone to read it.

When I first started reading I was apprehensive, as I have naturally always yearned for quick fixes in everything. I think that is why I rely solely on taking anti-depressants and going for therapy, rather than adding self care into the mix as well. This book is a real eye-opener and I believe it’s good to challenge our own beliefs.

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?
I love Caitlin Moran’s no-nonsense humour and focus on music, as well as Aaron Gillie’s (aka Technically Ron) hilarious reflections on living a life with anxiety. But I think overall the biggest influence on me was, and still is, the Standard Issue community. Sarah Millican set that magazine up (which now runs as a podcast) as a no-bullshit magazine for women. And all the contributors – from comedians to every day peeps like me – have a real authentic feel about them. It’s refreshing and it helped me find a voice. It made the in-crowd inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Where do you get your ideas from?
I look around me and I consider how pop culture / society has impacted me. I can’t comment on other people’s relationships with it, but I can share my own, and it seems to have rung true with a good few people so hopefully it is relatable.

Do you have a favourite scene/character/story you’ve written?
I’ve just started experimenting with fiction, and I have created a character I would love to hang out with. She has elements of me in there but overall, aside from her anxiety and taste in music, she’s a very different character. Far more confident, I’d say. I wrote a scene about her trip to her local pub with her best mate, who is made up of lots of people from my past, and it was so much fun to write.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on the fiction project mentioned above, as well as a series of short stories I’m working on together with my husband, actor Chris Connel. It’s been interesting so far, we’ve had to be very careful to avoid the bickering, so we have set out clear boundaries – I’m doing the research and overarching concepts, he’s doing the characterisation and creative scriptwriting!

Me!.jpg

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given (and who was it from)?
I arranged a manuscript assessment recently via The Literary Consultancy and author Angela Clarke was my assessor. Her review was honest and helpful, giving me some technical advice, but also getting me to think more about the bigger picture. It helped no end – giving me encouragement but also making me realise how commercial I need to be, and how I need to keep at it until I get it right (remember what I said earlier about always wanting the quick fixes – this was a reminder that I needed to hone my ideas before pitching them out).

I also remember, when I very first started writing a proposal for my book, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes, author and blogger, Claire Eastham asked me some tough questions to help me to craft the proposal. She apologised for being so challenging, but it was her most challenging questions, I believe, that have helped me the most.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Ha – probably a pantster. I just write and write whatever comes into my head. In experimenting with fiction, I have, however, done a bit of planning with regards to characterisation and an outline structure, which has been immensely helpful. But for blogs and comment and my own memoir, I fire up the laptop and see what happens.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I still see myself as very much a fledgling writer, so I am learning all the time. But I think the most important things I have picked up are to keep at it. I’ve had rejection after rejection – and I’m still seeking a literary agent to this day. But I am not giving up. I read somewhere you have to enjoy writing and writing for yourself. That way, regardless of what comes of it, it’s time well spent.

What’s been your proudest writing-related moment?
I could go for the big one and say it was when I was invited to Buckingham Palace with the Time to Change and Mind teams for World Mental Health Day in 2016. It was pretty amazing to be part of that and sit on a royal throne (of the lavatorial kind, of course). However, I think the proudest moment for me was seeing the impact that my writing has had. One person, who I won’t name but she knows who she is, has made me feel that every single hour put into writing and trying to get my work out there has been worth it, after messaging me to say she was close to calling an ambulance during a severe panic attack, but she asked her husband to read my blog out to her and it helped to calm her down. There’s nothing that can beat that kind of response to your work. That has to be the proudest moment for me.  

Guest Post: Sarah Dobbs on the University of Sunderland Short Story Award

Today I welcome Sarah Dobbs to tell us all about this year’s University of Sunderland short story award. As Sarah says, entries are welcome from all over the world so even if you don’t live in the North East, you can still enter. 
Good luck!
Vic x
Many thanks for hosting us! The University of Sunderland in Association with Waterstones Short Story Award is now in its third year. We have four categories: Adult, 11-17 and Regional (adults and 11-17). The winners in each category receive cash prizes of £300. All shortlisted entries are collected in an anthology by our publishers, Bandit Fiction.
For the 2019 competition, we have promoted a distinct regional category as the prize has always hoped to nurture and support talent in our area. Entrants to the regional category may live, work or study within Northumberland, County Durham and Tyne and Wear. You can enter both the Adult and Regional category, or just one. We also enjoy working with promising young writers after the competition in an aim to nurture talent.

There is no theme, but there is a word count of 2500 for the Adults and Regional categories and 1500 for the 11-17. Stories don’t have to reach the maximum word count however and we enjoy surprising, experimental and hybrid work, as well as a ‘traditionally’ well-crafted story.

Entry fees are £5 for each category, except 11-17, which is free and we welcome entries regardless of where you live, in previous years we’ve had a fair amount of international entries.

In the past we’ve been fortunate to have been supported by judges who are literary agents and publishers, last year we welcomed Professor Ailsa Cox, the world’s first professor in short fiction and this year we’re delighted to have Dr Guy Mankowski, author of An Honest Deceit and recipient of an Arts Council Award to research his novel Letters to Yelena. Guy is also a lecturer at Newcastle University and runs the arts and spoken word night, New Art Social, at Ernest. Nicholas Royle is also on this year’s judging panel.
Entries open on the 17th December 2018 and close on the 1st July 2019. Further details and links to the entry form are on banditfiction.co.uk and it’s worth taking advantage of the fact you can download the 2018 anthology for free.
We look forward to reading your stories!
Sara

Guest Post: Louise Mangos on Writing What You Know

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It is my pleasure today to welcome Louise Mangos to the blog to talk about her intimate knowledge of the setting for her debut psychological thriller ‘Strangers on a Bridge‘.

Louise writes novels, short stories and flash fiction, which have won prizes, been placed on shortlists, and have also been read on BBC radio. Her debut psychological thriller ‘Strangers on a Bridge‘ is published by HQ Digital (Harper Collins) in ebook, paperback and on audio. You can connect with Louise on Facebook and Twitter or visit her website where there are links to more of her stories. Louise lives in Switzerland with her husband and two sons.

Vic x

Portrait with orange dress

The much-travelled author Mark Twain allegedly said “write what you know. Having spent much of my time in central Switzerland for the past twenty years, the one thing I feel confident in portraying in my novels is the setting. Both my first and second novels are set in and around the Swiss Alps. 

Strangers on a Bridge begins with ex-pat Alice Reed out for a jog one morning when she sees a man – Manfred – about to jump from the Lorzentobelbrücke. As this is rather a mouthful for English readers, it is referred to in the novel as the Tobel Bridge. In reality it is a notorious suicide hotspot that has sadly found its way into many local newspaper articles over the years.

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A quick trip on the bike to re-visit the setting for the first scene on the Tobel Bridges.

The area surrounding the village where my protagonist Alice lives is called the Aegerital, or the Aegeri Valley. It is a cleft of land gouged out of alpine granite with rivers running in and out of the jewel at its centre – the Aegeri Lake. Our family moved there twenty years ago when my first son was six months old. Many of the difficulties Alice faces in Strangers on a Bridge were challenges I also faced when we first moved, speaking no German and pre-occupied with a new baby. 

But that’s where the similarities end. I’m happy to report I never witnessed a person wanting to jump from the Tobel Bridge, and I was certainly never stalked by anybody. I should also point out that we worked hard to integrate into the community we now live in. We made an early effort to learn the language, and have experienced friendliness and acceptance from our neighbours ever since.

During the creative and theoretical modules for my Masters in Crime Writing at UEA, two of my professors, Henry Sutton and Tom Benn, talked about the importance of setting in a novel. They encouraged the students to incorporate the setting to such an extent that it effectively becomes one of the characters. 

No matter where a crime novel is set, this atmosphere must be conveyed to the reader to enhance the tension. This might include how a setting behaves through the seasons, for example, the environmental influences in extreme weather conditions.

Strangers on a Bridge begins in spring, the perfect opening for any novel. The season of births and beginnings. Alice is out for a spring jog when she sees Manfred on the bridge and is convinced he is about to jump. Her shock jars alarmingly with the beautiful alpine spring surroundings.

A great deal of research was still undertaken to make the narrative of this psychological thriller believable. Although I am familiar with many of the rules and traditions in Switzerland, police and legal procedures had to be subsequently verified and checked.

But with the setting clearly cemented as one of the characters in the narrative, it was a pleasure to embellish the plot to match the drama of the Alps.

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The view of the Aegerital from Alice’s running trail in spring.

**Summer at Hollyhock House Blog Tour**

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Today I’m pleased to welcome Cathy Bussey, the author of ‘Summer at Hollyhock House‘ to the blog to talk about writing a realistic heroine. This topic is of particular interest to me and I hope it’ll be of use to you too when considering how to make original, realistic characters. 

Cathy is an author, journalist and hopeless romantic who wrote her first book at the tender age of six. Entitled ‘Tarka the Otter‘, according to Cathy it was a shameless rip-off of the Henry Williamson classic of the same name, and the manuscript was lost after she sent it to her penpal and never heard a jot from her since. 

Fortunately reception to her writing became more favourable and she spent ten years working for a range of newspapers and magazines covering everything from general elections and celebrity scandals to cats stuck up trees and village fetes. She has been freelance since 2011 and written for ‘The Telegraph’, ‘Red Online’, ‘Total Women’s Cycling’ and other lifestyle and cycling publications and websites. 

She is the author of three non-fiction books and her debut and thankfully non-plagiarised novel ‘Summer at Hollyhock House‘ has been published by Sapere Books. 

Cathy lives on the leafy London/Surrey border with her husband, two children and a dog with only two facial expressions: hungry and guilty. Her hobbies include mountain biking, photography, wandering around outside getting lost, fantasising about getting her garden under control, reading, looking at pretty things on Instagram and drinking tea. You can find her there, on Twitter or visit her website. 

My thanks to Cathy for sharing her experience with us. 

Vic x

Cathy Bussey

Writing the heroine you want to be
By Cathy Bussey

The stories of women’s lives have always gripped and fascinated me. I grew up with chick lit and I’m firmly part of the Bridget Jones generation. The Shopaholic series, Sex and the City – these were the cornerstones of my literary and emotional education.

I adore the intelligence with which women write about the issues that affect us all. Love and romance, friendship and family, mental and physical health, children, ageing parents – there’s so much in everyday life to explore that I’ve never tired of the women’s fiction genre. But. 

There’s always a but, isn’t there?

I always struggled to find heroines with whom I could truly identify. 

The classic city girl who can’t get a hair out of place and screams at the sight of a spider – that ain’t me. 

I can’t walk in high heels since I had children, nor do I want to. Glossy shopping sprees, makeovers, shoes, handbags, manicures, Prosecco, spa weekends, nights out with the girls – the stereotypical setting of chick-lit doesn’t reflect my internal reality. I’ve never once fantasised about moving to New York.

I have only once found a heroine that spoke to my other, wilder side. 

One of the best romcoms I ever read was called Going Ape and it came free with a copy of Cosmo. I can’t even find it on Google so I assume it’s out of print, but it had an enormous impact on me. It was set on a monkey sanctuary and the heroine was a scientist. I adored her. She was no less flawed and quirky and adorable than Bridget, Becky, Carrie et al, but she got her hands dirty. Very dirty, actually. 

So when I came to create my own heroine, Faith, I wanted to write her for women like me. For girls like the girl I used to be. 

She’s a nature girl, a bit of a wildflower, she’s outdoorsy and active and energetic. She rides bikes down gnarly trails and digs ponds with a shovel. She gets the guy – or does she? – on her own terms. 

She represents a different definition of femininity, and one with which I can both identify, and aspire to. I created her for me, and I really hope somewhere out there other women might feel that I created her a little bit for them, too. 

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Don’t Quit the day Job: Jonny Keen

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

Today’s guest is Jonny Keen, an NHS worker who has published two books so far: ‘The Rider in the Waves‘, a collection of fantasy short stories, and ‘Lightfoot‘ which is a fantasy novel. Jonny’s writing is often described as light fantasy or comic fantasy, but the piece he submitted for WriteNow was literary fiction.

Jonny also writes non-fiction articles for a range of publications including Teach Early Years and the Manchester Evening News. He’s also the editor of Llandudno FC’s matchday programme. 

My thanks to Jonny for being involved.

Vic x

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A friend told me recently that I’m getting to be a bit like Homer Simpson; I seem to have a completely different job every week. I’ve been a computer game researcher, a call centre drone, a test subject for an experimental drug, a nursery nurse, a personal assistant, a medical typist and a few other things too. All this before the age of 25!

It certainly makes for a range of experience that can serve to inspire creative writing. Last year, I sent part of a novel to Penguin Random House for a competition called WriteNow. This is an initiative that aims to help writers from minority backgrounds get their work published, and since I have a disability (dyspraxia) I was eligible to apply. The piece I sent in focused on a character trying to navigate the daily trials and tedium of working in an office. It came from personal experience and I couldn’t have made it authentic without having had that personal experience to base it on. I was selected as one of the 150 entrants invited in for a day of writing seminars, workshops and a face to face consultation with one of Penguin’s publishing assistants, so it’s nice to know my working life got me somewhere in the literary world.

But I think there’s more to be said for working than just inspiration. Working in so many different industries has certainly helped my creativity along. The two emotional states I tend to switch between whilst at work are those of boredom and stress. Oddly enough, I find both states highly conducive to creativity. Those emotions cause me to seek mental escape and I often think up interesting story ideas whilst at work. Occasionally, a job even had good opportunities to note down ideas. When I was a nursery nurse, I used to draft short stories whilst supervising a room full of sleeping toddlers. That job was especially good for inspiration. My first book, The Rider in the Waves, was largely inspired by the slightly surreal things children of two and three would say to me on a daily basis, and the strange games they would make up.

I remember starting my first part time job as a teenager and absolutely hating it. It was in a call centre and I couldn’t stand the environment. I consoled myself with the thought that in a few short years I was bound to be a published author and then I would be free. It didn’t take long before I learned that things were a little more difficult that and even some very successful authors still hold down day jobs to pay the bills. This became a bit of a struggle for me. As I grew up, I had to get to grips with the idea that I was going to have to work a regular job for the foreseeable future. But whilst I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t love to write full time, perhaps remaining in work is a good thing. It helps me to stay motivated, keeps the creative juices flowing and gives me plenty of real world experience to base my writing on. Finding the time to write with a full time job and other commitments can be tough, but sometimes the difficult things in life can help to shape us into better, stronger people and I think that’s certainly the case with my writing.

the rider in the waves